Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Happiest Kiss

To say she drifted like an angel along the bustling streets of Rome might sound cliché, but that’s exactly what she did.  I first saw her as I began the walk from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the nearest subway station, and I confess I found reasons to pause here and there to catch a glimpse of her.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  She was, perhaps, the most beautiful woman in Rome, and frankly, that’s saying a lot.

She was dressed in white, delicately trimmed in a holy shade of blue, and when she stopped to talk with the homeless man at the market, the deep afternoon sun shining behind her, her face aglow with gold, my heart melted within me.  I couldn’t hear their conversation.  I didn’t know if she had ever spoken with the old man before, but they smiled like they were old friends.  I sat a short distance away just to watch them.  She lovingly, casually, placed a hand on his shoulder as they spoke.  They laughed together, then waved kind good-byes, and she walked on.  I confess again that, in the most benign way possible, I followed her.

The street was bustling with people: tourists at shop windows, business men in finely tailored suits on their way to important cappuccinos, sophisticated ladies in oversized sunglasses on their way to wherever sophisticated ladies go.  At the feet of these people however, every fifty metres or so, there were the forgotten ones.  

A man with withered legs sat on a ragged piece of cardboard holding a dirty styrofoam cup in his hands.  The business men and the elegant women passed him by, not sparing even a glance.  But the angel in white and blue, God bless her, she stopped, and greeted him with that shining smile, bending low to meet his eyes.  Here too they spoke like old friends.  Though again I couldn’t hear her words, nor would I likely have understood them if I could, I could see these words were warm with love.

The scene repeated itself several times along the route from Saint Peter’s to the subway.  She did not walk past a single mendicant hand without stopping to hold it.  At each encounter, there emanated from her a shining joy, flowing from her smile like a song.  She was a woman in love.

She had first heard him preach one Sunday in Lent, and from that moment she had fallen in love.  He stood before the faithful in a badly worn, and badly patched, peasant’s robe.  He spoke of simplicity, of poverty and joy and trust.  He spoke of the lilies of the field and a Father’s tenderness.  And when he spoke of the sacred flame of charity, it sparked in her heart like a flint to kindling.  Her heart was pounding in her ears as she left church that day.  She was 18 years old, and she had just fallen in love.

She knew she must keep it secret for now.  She was young and her parents dreamt loudly of the husband she would marry and the grandchildren she would provide for them.  She was, after all, the daughter of a Count, and her father lined up worthy men for her choosing like bolts of cloth for a wedding dress.  But to her father’s consternation, she denied each one in favour of the hidden love she treasured in her heart.  Each day this love grew in the deep ground of her soul, and each time she saw the man in the pauper’s robe, it was like water to the secret seed.

She began to meet with him secretly, and they quietly planned her escape.  Soon she would have her chance.  She would leave at last her former life, the life her father had planned for her.  She would at last know true freedom, and her love would be hidden no more.

It was Palm Sunday.  The congregants quietly filed away after mass in the cathedral.  She lingered in her seat until the church was empty, praying for courage.  Her heart fluttered with anticipation as she walked home.  She ate a Sunday meal with her family.  It would be the last family meal of its kind.  Evening came, and she slipped quietly out the door.  The sky was pink, and the green trees of the hillside were frosted with the grey of twilight.  She flew as quickly and as quietly as her feet could carry her, down past Assisi’s walls, down to the woods and into the clearing.

There stood the small church where this night she would be wed.  She caught her breath.  The humble doors creaked open beneath her delicate hand.  There were a few scattered friars seated around the tiny room.  Francis was waiting for her, praying at the altar.  He stood to greet her.  Next to him, a statue of the Blessed Virgin gazed upon her, and Clare trembled with a joyous fear.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

 She stepped forward to the altar.  Francis stood beside her.

The ceremony was simple, and she answered a simple “Yes” to each vow.  She marvelled at how brief and shining such a life-changing moment can be.  Finally, she was ready to accept the strange symbol of her wedding vows.  In Francis’s hand were a pair of scissors.  He lifted them to Clare’s hair.  His eyes met hers and seemed to ask a silent question.  She closed her eyes and bowed her head in silent ascent.

In her youth her hair had been her glory, bright as her smile and beautiful as the yellow flowers of the hills of Assisi.  Now it fell to the church floor, catching the dim light of the room as it descended in tumbling locks.  Her tresses were gone.  Francis placed a veil upon her head, and held before her a simple tunic of pauperous brown.  She took it, and kissed it.  Her tears splashed down upon it like holy water.  It was her happiest kiss.

“Dear Clare,” said Francis, “from this day forward, you are the spouse of Christ.”

“Behold,” said Clare, “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

In the days to come, word of her wedding would spread.  Her father would come for her and attempt to dissuade her from her vows.  When that didn’t work, he would try to take her away by force.  But her fate was set and her mettle was as sure as the veil upon her head.  She was the bride of the Most High King of the Heavens, and she would not be moved.

San Damiano became her home; others would soon join her.  Her sister, her aunt, eventually even her widowed mother, and many more.  They saw in Clare the radiance of her Beloved.  What else could they do but forsake the shadows for the glorious light?

“What a great laudable exchange,” wrote Clare, “to leave the things of time for those of eternity, to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth….”

 Like their brothers the Franciscans, the Poor Clares (as they came to be called in years to come), embraced a life of radical poverty and profound simplicity.  But unlike their brothers, they would mainly stay rooted in the humble confines of San Damiano.  Francis would change the world by going out into it.  Clare would change the world by being rooted in a particular place.  Francis would preach, and his adventures would take him from Mount Subasio to the war tents of a Sultan and back.  Clare would remain here.  If Francis was to be the hands and feet of Christ, Clare was to be the heart, the beating heart in the centre of the once falling church which Francis had rebuilt.  If Francis was as Brother Sun running ablaze across the sky, Clare was Sister Moon, steady and shining in the dark.  She was the clear, bright star of Assisi, and Francis was drawn to her light as a seafaring captain to the light of Polaris.

Each day, in the simplicity of communion, in the humility of community, she found new delights in the arms of her Husband, and her life of prayer was less like that of a somber nun than that of an amorous wife.  Her love for her Beloved Spouse, born in the heart of a teenage girl, grew into the abiding love of a wise and passionate woman.  Her father had meant her to marry into nobility.  She was married instead to a King.

Eventually, the angel descended to the subway.  She just happened to be headed in the same direction as me.  Honest.  Her white robes swayed with the woosh of the train’s door as she took hold of the hand grip above her.  Her habit was that of the Sisters of Charity, but she was dressed in the robes of humility, dressed like the lilies of the field.  She was a beauty unrivalled.  She was a woman in love.

Draw me after You!
We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes,
O heavenly Spouse!
I will run and not tire,
until You bring me into the wine-cellar,
until Your left hand is under my head
and Your right hand will embrace me happily
and You will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.

-Saint Clare of Assisi,1253

Friday, August 31, 2012

All-Highest, Almighty Good Lord

All-highest, Almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory, and honour
and every blessing;
To you alone are they due,
and no man is worthy to speak your name.

And so we begin a story.

Of course, any big story is really just a collection of smaller stories.  Sometimes it’s best to tell the stories in a line, laid out like train tracks toward a sure destination.  But sometimes it’s best to gather those stories together like a bright bunch of little flowers, letting your nose decide which to admire next.  My story, the story of Francis and me, is not a story of train tracks (though I did ride a train a few times).  It’s more like a bouquet.  

For now, however, I’ll begin at the beginning.  Or at least, a beginning.

Francis was in prison again.  His cell was cramped, and he couldn’t stand.  He sat crouched on the ground, his left hand resting its fingers in the steel rods of his tiny cage.  He prayed, and prayed, as tears ran from his eyes onto the hem of his robe.  For the second time in his life, he was in prison.  He was not yet 25.  He couldn’t help but be reminded of the first time he was thrown into a cold cell.

War was a popular pastime for the people of his city, and Francis had enthusiastically enlisted to fight against the evil forces of the neighbouring town of Perugia.  His first day in glorious battle did not bode well for him, however. He was captured, and cast into prison with several other men.

The cell was dank, and the scent of men who were more dead than alive filled its darkness.  Each day, he breathed in sickness, filth, disease.  Illness came to him as surely as did despair.  He crouched in the cold as a fever took hold of his mind and body.  Shivering with sweat, his sickness became his prison within a prison, and his thoughts seemed to be carried like captives into an inner cavern, black and bottomless and eternal.  Here there was no light, only waves of red sickness behind his closed eyes.  Here there was only eternity, and he fell into it like Jonah into the bottomless deep.  His youthful dreams of glory, of conquests, or riches, now lurked like black, monstrous shapes in the depths, waiting to swallow him up.

Each day was darkness, and this, in its own way, was a mercy, because he could not count them.  He began to pray as only a man in complete despair can pray:  “God… oh Jesus…  oh God…” and his prayer would become one, one strange and shapeless form, with his sickness, his fever, his eternity.

But something else began to form in his fever.  A seed was planted in the emptiness.  Light entered into darkness.  His prayers began to take shape, for he began to believe that maybe Someone was hearing them.  His sickness remained, weakening his body with each passing hour.  His mind could be overtaken with feverish visions and confusion.  But something in his spirit grew stronger, or at least sustained itself against the darkness.  Hope had come into his despair.  Light had come into his darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.  

It would be over a year until he would be released.  There were certain advantages to being from the family of the burgeoning middle class of Assisi.  Francis’s father, Pietro, was no nobleman, but he had done very well for himself as a cloth merchant.  He paid his son’s ransom, and Francis came home.  Here he would remain for another year as he lay in bed, his prison fever with him still.  Slowly, he recovered, but he would never again be completely whole and healthy, and sickness would follow him for the rest of his days.  

As his health returned, so too did his ideas of glory.  Certainly he had experienced something of the Divine in his prison, in his sickness, but he was young, and God and glory were all but the same.  To fight for the one was surely to fight for the other.

The fourth Crusade was set to begin, with popes, counts, and kings readying an army to invade Egypt.  Francis insisted he was well enough to fight, and set out to join a company of men in southern Italy.  He was only a day’s journey from Assisi when he turned back.  The people of Assisi whispered of supposed visions from God.  Most began to conclude that his imprisonment and sickness had taken more than his health: it had taken his mind as well.  He no longer attended the parties over which he had once been crowned “king”.  He spent his days riding the plains beneath the town, and was even known to willingly visit a leper colony.  He stopped wearing the trendy clothing so readily available to him, and began to wear instead a field worker’s robe.  Their suspicions about his mental health were confirmed when he began to talk of hearing Jesus speak to him in the ruins of old San Damiano.  He said that Jesus had told him to rebuild his church.

As any good young son on a mission from God would do, he began by selling his father’s stuff.  His father was infuriated.  Francis’s insisting that it was Jesus who had asked this of him did not help.  

“You disrespect your father!” Pietro screamed.  “You humiliate him!  You steal from him!  How is this the will of God??”  Pietro was wild with anger, and the man named for the Rock of the Church fell hard upon his son.  His fists fell blow upon blow upon his child as tears lined both their faces.  Francis, the young man who had once had dreams of glorious battle, lay passively beneath his father’s rage.

“You will respect me!  You will respect your father!  You will respect your father!!”

There was a small closet with a small iron gate in the house.  Pietro dragged his only son across the floor and threw him inside.  He slammed shut the door and locked it.

“There you will stay until you learn what your God says about honouring your father!  Until then I have no son!”  Pietro walked away, weeping with rage.

For the second time in his young life, Francis was in prison.  But it was in prison that his soul had been awakened to the Divine, and this prison was no different.  He prayed.  He prayed not for himself, however, but for his father, entrapped in his wealth and caged in his poverty.  He prayed for his mother.  He prayed at last for his own soul.  He prayed for forgiveness for his pride, his impiety, his holy arrogance.  

If in his first imprisonment a seed had been planted, this second prison would be the womb in which a new man was formed.  

Three days later, he was born again.  He stood naked before God and his father, handing the last remnants of his worldly identity back to his earthly patriarch.  His father had dragged him to the doorstep of the church, demanding justice.  This Pietro received in a form he never could have imagined.  His son returned to him every cent he had taken, and with the money he returned his clothes, and his sonship.

“I love you, father, but unless a man hates his father and mother for the sake of Christ, he can never walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  I return to you my sonship.  I have no father now but my Father in Heaven.”

Eight hundred and six years later, I would stand before that cramped cell in wonder.  My fingers would gently follow the edges of the brick, reflecting on my own misunderstandings and conflicts with my earthly father.  Here, from conflict and imprisonment, a man was born.  He would change the world, he would change my life, because somewhere between his first prison and his second, his soul had been awakened to something great, something Good, something worthy of his love, his riches, his poverty, his pain.  To this Divine Good alone, this source of all goodness, Francis pledged his life, his praise, and his honour.  Though no man is worthy to speak the name of this Almighty Good, he bowed low and taught us instead to call him Lord, to call him Father

It was from this Father that Francis would learn his sonship, and from this Father that Francis would learn his brotherhood to all creation.  Eight hundred years later, I would begin to learn mine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In All Humility

Bless and praise my Lord,
thank Him, and serve Him in all humility.

It was a year and nine months into my year of exile, and I sat with Chyna on his corner in Victoria, BC.  He was hunkered down with his cap out.  His skin was dark and red, his hair pulled back in a ponytail.  His native ancestry didn’t allow for much of a beard, but he wore a sparse but effective goatee.  This was his spot, on the edge of Victoria’s Chinatown, and every day he sits beneath the red dragon.  I first met him a year ago, when I’d volunteered with a group of friends, handing out sandwiches, socks and conversation to the street community of the island city.

“Hello how are you today?” he said to people passing by.  Most people ignored him, but some would smile and say, “Fine, how are you?” as they walked on.  Chyna doesn’t ask for change.  He just says Hello and holds out his hat.

“Sometimes I like to give poets to people,” he said.  “People like it if you give them poets.”

I was not sure I’d understood correctly.  Did he mean “compliments”?  I nodded anyway.

“Watch me.  I’ll give somebody a poet.” 

Two young women approached.

“Hey how are you ladies doing?  Can I tell you something?”

“No.”  They kept walking.

A man and his wife approached from the other direction.

“Good afternoon, how are you today?”

“Fine,” said the man.

“Can I tell you something?”

“No thank-you.”  They kept walking.

A woman approached from the left.  She was pretty.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?”

She said nothing and kept walking.

Chyna turned to me, nodded toward her and said, “Why didn’t you introduce me to your wife?”

“She doesn’t talk to me anymore,” I told him.

“Ha-HAAA!  ‘She doesn’t talk to me anymore’.”  He laughed and gave me a fist bump. “That’s a good back-up!  That’s good!  Ha-haa!”

Finally, two more young women approached from the right.

“Hello, ladies,” he said.

“Hello,” they said.

“Do you have a second?  Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” the dark-haired one said.

Chyna began his “poet”.  It went something like this:

When you walk down the street, people feel something when you go by.
They wonder what it is.  
They don’t know.
“What is that?” they say.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.  They shine.
But that doesn’t matter!
People are drawn to you.  
They wonder what’s happening.  They can feel it.
It’s your smile.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.
It’s your smile.
It’s your spirit.

I realized that a “poet” is something between a compliment and a poem.  “Poet” is actually the perfect word for what he gives people.

“My name’s Chyna, by the way.  With a ‘Y’”

The dark-haired girl extended her hand.  “Hi, Chyna.  I remember you.”

“Have I given you that one before?” he asked.

“Not in a while,” she said.

They politely introduced themselves and shook our hands.  When they finally moved on, he told me it was my turn.

“My turn?” I asked.

“Yeah, give somebody a poet!  Come on!”

I laughed, and my heart began to pound.  He wasn’t kidding.  

“Oh, man!” I said.  “I’m too shy!  I’m just a bashful little kid inside, Chyna.”

“Oh come on.  You can give somebody a poet.  Come on.”

I pride myself on being able to blend in with the homeless.  Homeless people don’t necessarily think I’m homeless, but when I’m sitting on a street corner with somebody who lives on the street, I can look like one of the fellas to the untrained eye.  Once, in Rome, as I sat with Franco and Antonio, a kindly gentleman gave a coin to Antonio, a coin to Franco, and a coin to me.  That made Franco smile.  I suppose the beard helps a lot.  I like that I don’t feel self-conscious about sitting down in the middle of the street with a homeless man.  What Chyna was asking of me, however, was something else, and the tragically bashful kid inside me was freaking out.

“Hi,” I squeaked out to a passerby.  I don’t think they even noticed.

“What was that?” Chyna asked incredulously.

“I’m sorry!  I’m tellin’ you, I’m shy!  I’ll try again.”

But as the street corner conversation between us went on, and we even progressed to deeper things like God and the Gospel of John, I secretly hoped that his suggestion, his dare, that I give a “poet” to someone would be quietly forgotten.

Graffiti lines the walls of San Damiano.  Some of it is as recent as 1899 or 1948.  One piece scratched into the wall reads, as well as I can translate it, “Brother Kilroy wuz here.  1309.”  

I was walking through the hallowed halls of the ancient monastery, exploring the places of communion where the Poor Claires would meet for meals and prayer.  The graffiti caught my eye as I ascended the stairs into one small chapel room in particular.  I peered closely at the small scratches of writing, fascinated and bemused at how ancient a practice it really is to mark a place with one’s presence.  From bathrooms to tourist sites to holy places, it seems people have always wanted to leave their mark and say, “I was here.  Remember me.”

Along with a few signatures and dates from pilgrims of the last 800 years (“Vincenzo wuz here, 1760”), there were also a few drawings scratched into the old frescoes.  A cross.  A cartoonish-looking figure that must have been a friar.  Two little drawings that grabbed my attention were of two little birds.  They might have been little sparrows.  I ran my fingers lightly over their scratched-in feathers and smiled.  Now this, I thought, is some truly Franciscan graffiti.  

There is a reason Saint Francis is the statue of choice for bird baths.  In most paintings of him, ancient and modern, he is pictured in the presence of birds.  He is famous for having preached to the birds when people wouldn’t listen, exhorting them to sing and praise their Father in Heaven.  Most often, a particular little bird is seen at Francis’s feet or on his shoulder: a sparrow.

Sparrows are, perhaps, the most humble of the birds.  They don’t soar like eagles, nor do their little wings fascinate like the thrumming wings of a hummingbird.  They are plain and brown, dressed in their own kind of religious habit.  Their song is more pleasant than some, but neither is it as beautiful as others.  It’s simple and sweet, and they live, quite literally, off the crumbs from our table.  They do not reap or sow, but their Father in Heaven knows their needs, and sends them our leftover donuts and Big Mac buns.  That is why they have come to represent the poor, and whenever you see an image of Francis with a sparrow on his finger, it is saying less about his communion with animals than it is about his communion with the lowly.  It speaks of his humility.

Like the sparrow, the humble have a song.  It often goes unheard and unnoticed in the noise of the city and the rumours of wars, but it is beautiful and small, and sings of simplicity and providence, of trust and freedom.  To embrace humility, to let it rest on your finger and look it in the eye, is to be given a song to sing.  

Or in my case, a “poet” to recite to a passerby.

“You haven’t given a poet to anybody yet!” said Chyna.  He was still hunkered up next to me, his cap outstretched between his thumbs.  He hadn’t forgotten.

“Alright,” I sighed, “I will.”

I tried to think of something to say to someone in the style of a “poet”.  My heart raced.

A lady came walking by.  Chyna gave me the look that said, This is the one!  My heart pounded.

“Hello!” I said.

She turned and smiled and said, “Hi,” as she walked on.  It was now or never.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stopping to listen, her hand above her eyes against the afternoon sun.

I felt like a little bird, small and low upon the ground, staring up at a world that seldom chooses to notice.  I was reminded that sometimes humility is simply voluntary humiliation.  Someone had stopped to hear my little song.  It was time to sing.

“You don’t know it, but you’re walking around shining with the Glory of God.”

It was nothing on the scale of Chyna’s poet-ry, but it was something.  I waited.

She put her hands together, smiled, and bowed a little as she said, “Thank-you.”  She turned and crossed the street, walking onward into the rest of her life.  Chyna chided me.

“No,” he said, “people don’t like to be preached at.”

But I think she liked it, at least a little, and in Chyna’s exhortation to me to give people “poets” (even with the admonition not to “preach”), I can almost hear the words of Francis himself, when he preached to his friends:

“My little sisters the birds, you owe much to God, your Creator, and you ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you the liberty to fly about into all places…. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests.  Your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties.… Study always to give praise to God.”

Bless and praise my Lord, thank Him, and serve Him in all humility.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sister Death

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death…

I’m not a fan of Death.  I remember the death of my brother, when he was 24 and I was 19, and I feel very little love for her.  She tore a wound into my family and me, and the wound still aches in cold weather.  The scriptures themselves name her as an enemy, The Last Enemy in fact, and one day she will be destroyed.  She entered our world when our failure and sin unlocked the gates so long ago in the Garden of Delight, and she crashes in again and again, those same gates swinging wide, and takes from us our closest friends, in suffering, in disease, even, as with my brother, in fleeting mistakes.  We’re left reeling in the vacant wake of her taking, and we wait our turn.  We try to distract ourselves like restless patients in a waiting room, but she comes for us nonetheless.

How, then, am I to have peace with such an unrelenting foe?  How can Brother Francis name her as a Sister through whom he praises the Almighty?  

From that first night I spent in Italy, Death was all around me, and she would stay with me throughout my pilgrimage.  

I wandered past the basilica around the corner from my hostel on that first evening in Rome.  There were people in fine attire gathering at the doors, filing in for some sort of special event.  I asked the security guard what was happening.  

“A concert tonight,” he said.

“How much are tickets?” I asked.

“It is free,” he said, “Come in, come in.”

I shuffled in and found a seat near the back, feeling a little self-conscious about my tourist shorts and the plastic bag I was carrying (Raman noodles and fruit were on the menu for some fine Italian dining this evening).  The orchestra tuned their instruments and the choir members took their places as I perused the program.

 Ein Deutsches Requiem Op 45, by Johannes Brahms

I read the words of the movements as the choir filled the basilica with a hundred voices:

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.  The grass withereth, and the flowers thereof falleth away….

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.

There she was, seated beside me, my new companion on my journey.  That night, in the music of this lilting, rolling requiem, Sister Death and I began a silent conversation.

I remember when I first became aware of the reality of death.  A little boy from our church had drowned, and we attended his funeral.  I remember viewing the coffin.  Tucked into the coffin with him was his stuffed Sesame Street Ernie doll.  He seemed to be tucked in for bedtime, but I knew he wasn’t sleeping.  He was dead.  I didn’t know the boy, but I sat in my pew and cried.  I knew that this was not what was meant to be.  This Death was very bad.

I remember the night my brother died.  It was an ordinary Thursday night.  The doorbell rang, and my parents went downstairs to answer it.  I stood at the top of the stairs to listen for who it was.  I don’t remember hearing what the police officer said, I just remember my mother crying out.  Everything became a dream.  There was a mirror in the hall way, and I remember looking into it and speaking to myself.  “Andre’s dead.  My brother is dead.”  I ran into the back bedroom and began to cry out to God.  “Wake me up!  Please wake me up!  Please wake me up!”

But I’m still here, and he’s still gone, and sometimes it feels like I’m still dreaming.  Sometimes I find myself still pleading.

All of this came to mind as the choir sang, as the soloists lamented the frailty of life and the certainty of death.  The requiem played on, rising and falling and rising again, building and building until the last movement.  These words rang out among the stone pillars and the people:

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…

I still hated her, but it was good that we were talking.

Three days later, I was in a crypt, surrounded on every side by the bones of the dead.  It was a good place to continue the conversation.  

Almost four hundred years ago, a group of Capuchin friars moved their brotherhood from France to the friary of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome.  With them, they brought the remains of their dead, almost 300 cart loads of bones.  With limited space, the friars found a creative solution both to honour the dead and to remind themselves of their mortality.  From death, they would make something beautiful.  In this crypt, femurs became crosses, fingers became chandeliers, and shoulder blades became the wings of angels.

I walked silently down the tiny hallway, stopping at each nave along the way.  Intricate patterns of vertebrae adorned the walls. Here and there, skeletal friars in familiar brown robes bowed in eternal prayer.  A placard in the sixth room of the crypt caught my eye. 

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now you will be.

I should have been shocked, even horrified, to be surrounded by death in this way.  Strangely, I was not.  Instead I looked in silence at the bones of the dead, and I felt great peace.  Long had I hated Sister Death.  Here I stood in her home, in her very embrace, and I was reminded of her place in the mysterious order of God.  This crypt was not a macabre celebration of death, and to see it as such would be to miss the point completely.  This crypt was a testament to the resurrection, a reminder that death does not have the final word in the conversation.  For the first time, I began to feel at peace with this enemy, Sister Death.  She and I were coming to an understanding.

It was night, on the third of October, 1226.  Francis lay naked on the cold earth, his frail body racked with pain, his blind eyes staring into eternity.  A few of his closest friends gathered around him.  He knew his time to die was drawing close, and he sang his canticle of praise to God.  But before he finished, he faltered.

“Wait,” he whispered. “It is not complete.  It needs another verse.  Will you write it for me, Brother Leo?”

Brother Leo held his hand.  “Of course, Father.”  Leo found parchment and pen, and Francis began to sing as faithful Leo took down his words:

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

As he sang these words, he felt the arms of Sister Death around him.  But he smiled, and kissed her, and completed her embrace with his own.  From the stinging wrath of his own earthly father, to the threats of the brigand Brother Wolf, to the last adversary of Life itself, he remembered the simple words of Jesus:  “Love your enemy.” 

In this, he had peace.  And in this, I find my own.  To love my enemy is to take away her power over me.  Woe to those who kick and scream and run from her.  Woe to those who live as though they would not die.  Woe to those who are willfully ignorant of their end, who hoard life to themselves and think nothing of giving it to others.  She will find you.  She will take you no matter how you protest and ignore her.  She will embrace you.

But for those who love their enemy, who know their end and the measure of their days, who know their frailty and welcome the inevitable embrace of Sister Bodily Death, they will become her conqueror, and she will joyfully relinquish her power.  They will pass from the dream into the reality of Divine Love.  In dying we awaken.  In dying we are born to eternal life.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Infirmity & Tribulation

…and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed be those who live in peace,
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

The angel descended, wings flowing like reeds in water, and touched his hands.  In her hands she held two crimson sashes, and with utmost tenderness, she took these and tied them over his palms.  Wounds appeared, and as they pierced his hands, a suffering which he had not known before (and he had known great suffering) overtook him.  

Another angel came, dressed in white, dancing from the skies with the grace of child.  She carried two more blood red sashes, and with great care she tied them to his feet, and his feet were pierced.  At last another seraph came to him, golden hair twirling about her in an unseen wind, and pinned her red sash to his side, and kissing it gently.  

He sat in silence, wounded in his hands which had built so much, wounded in his feet, which had taken him places he’d never dreamed he would go, wounded in his heart, which had loved so greatly.  But in this suffering, this sweet and beautiful and tender suffering, a Love which he had never known before (and he had known great love) overwhelmed him.  Music from another world drifted through and time and space and settled in the air all around him.

“My God, and my All!”

I looked on in silence from the darkness around him, enraptured by the scene, snapping pictures on my digital camera.

I was nearing the end of my Franciscan pilgrimage.  I had come at last, by train and by chance and by the kindness of strangers, to Mount La Verna.  

The road had been long.  I’d stayed at a house at the bottom of the mountain the night before.  My ankle was still on the mend, but well enough to walk, so that morning I began the hike up the great hill, taking in a beautiful and ever-changing view of the Casentino valley surrounding La Verna. 

Finally, after one last ride from a kind Italian and one last, aching hike for the last 3 kilometres to the top, I arrived at the Sanctuary of La Verna.  (Or, ‘La Santuaria Della Verna’.  Things sound so much better in Italian.)  Here there was a relatively small church and pilgrim’s hostel.  The view from the lookout area by the church was incredible, and that evening I stood in the setting sun as it blessed the land and said goodnight.  

Soon after, I was sitting in the darkened church, surrounded by men and women in varying vocational attire.  There were women in blue habits, men in familiar brown habits, and still other men and women in uniformed shorts.  This last set of men and women were with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  The boys and girls of a local troupe were putting on a very special play tonight about the life of Saint Francis.

I didn’t understand much of the dialogue, but as scenes and songs of the life of Francis played out before me, I was enraptured.  For here were two of my favourite things in the world: the life of Francis, and kids putting on a play.  There is perhaps nothing more engaging to me than watching children perform.  I’m charmed by the earnest simplicity and at the same time I’m crossing my fingers, praying they remember their lines.  Perhaps it’s partly because I remember both the thrill of charming an audience and the terror of forgetting my lines.  I was the comic relief king in Parkdale Baptist’s Church’s production of Three Wee Kings.  I killed.  My best line was when one of the other kings talked about going to Jericho:  “Geritol?  I’ve got some right here!”  But over-confidence from my triumph in Three Wee Kings led to under-rehearsing my lines for a production the following year.  I stood frozen on the stage, begging for my line from the director, trying to decipher her loud whisperings.  I learned my lesson well.  This production also had its comic relief with the portly little fellow portraying Brother Leo.  He never missed a beat, and he knew how to work a crowd.

The location was, of course, an apt place to produce a play about Francis.  The church we were in had been here since shortly after the time of Francis, and was built just a hundred yards or so from the actual place where Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.  

Of all the stories of Francis, some of which are history, some of which are whimsical legends, the story of the stigmata may be the most difficult to truly understand.  But there it is, passionately affirmed as history by his closest friends, confounding the modern mind.  Ultimately, however, it is the story which best defines him, and without it, we are left with a Francis devoid of his power and his longed-for reward.

Francis’s life had been a constant struggle to live out as closely as possible the poverty of Christ, to incarnate in his own flesh, inasmuch as a sinful human can, the life of Jesus.  (Some stories even affirm that this journey began for him from birth, with Francis being born in a stable below his family’s home.)  Sometimes this led him to extremes which he’d later repent of, but, mistakes and all, these choices led him into the very heart of Jesus.  He tried with every ounce of his strength, to embody Christ’s incarnational love, and denied to himself any comfort which Christ himself had been denied.  And like Jesus, he sought to alleviate the suffering of others by embracing their suffering himself.  

For truly, what more could Love do?

Is love ever seen more clearly than when it embraces the tribulations of another?  Is love ever felt more deeply than when it chooses to bear the sickness of the beloved?  It was for this Love that Jesus died, and for this Love that Francis lived.  It was not a fanatical sense of duty that made him live as he lived, nor a somber sense of self-denial.  It was Love.  For Francis, it was an honour and a joy, a privilege in fact, to feel with the living Christ the broken heart with which Christ loves the world.  

I sat in silence one day at his tomb in Assisi, and read a prayer he’d written in the last years of his life:

O my Lord Jesus Christ, I beg from you two graces before I die:
the first, that during my life I may feel in my body and soul, so far as it is possible, the pain that you suffered in the hour of your most bitter passion;
the second,
that I may feel in my heart, in so far as it is possible, that overbrimming love with which You, Son of God, were enflamed so as to bear willingly for us sinners such suffering.

It was on the mountain that this prayer was answered most dramatically, but Francis had lived a life that was itself an answer to this prayer.  Each day he made a choice to embrace poverty, to embrace the suffering of others, to embrace his own suffering.  In these choices, in this one great embrace, he was enflamed with Love.  He lived in peace not by avoiding suffering and violence, but by absorbing it, transforming it, and creating something beautiful where there was previously only discord, darkness, doubt, and injury.

His embrace of suffering and violence was not just spiritual, however.  It was embodied in him physically.  

It had been a year since he received the wounds of Christ in his body.  A disease of the eye had taken his sight from him, and his eyes burned with pain at the slightest brightness.  His body was racked with pain and weakness, and the stigmata persisted.  It would be this suffering that gave birth to his most beautiful song.  As he lay on a sickbed in a small garden in San Damiano, the place where he had first heard that joyous invitation so long before, he wrote his greatest hymn of praise to the God he so loved.  Nearly blind, and perhaps too weak to lift pen to page even if he could see, he sang his song while his close friend, the ever-faithful Brother Leo, took down the words:

All-highest, almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory and honour and every blessing;
to you alone are they due, and no man is worthy to speak your Name.

Be praised, my Lord, in all your creatures, especially for sire Brother Sun, who makes daytime,
and through him you give us light,
and he is beautiful, radiant with great splendour,
and he is a sign that tells, All-Highest, of you.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars;
you formed them in the sky, bright and precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind, and for the air and the clouds,
and for fair, and every kind of weather,
by which you give your creatures food.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water, 
who is most beautiful and humble and lovely and chaste.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire, 
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly, boisterous and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth,
who keeps us, and feeds us, and brings forth fruits of many kinds,
with coloured flowers and plants as well.

Be praised, my Lord, for those who grant pardon for love of thee,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed be those who live in peace, for by you, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Bless and praise my Lord, thank Him, 
and serve Him in all humility.

Francis sang, and as he did, Brother Sun came and stood behind him, lifting his hands to heaven.  Sister Moon danced in the sky above him, dressed in white, her golden face shining with light.  Brother Wind and Brother Fire, Sister Water and sister Mother Earth, danced around him, caught up in his chorus of creation.  The heavens opened, and angels joined the song.

I’ve seen a lot of films about Francis, read a tonne of books, even taken in a professional production of a musical about him while I was in Assisi, but this humble play by a Boy Scout troupe was perhaps the most profound expression of the life of Francis I’ve ever seen.  It captured something about him that the others could only attempt to grasp.  For all of the suffering he faced, all the infirmities of the world that he embraced, Francis had remained passionately simple in his struggle to live out the Gospel of Christ, profoundly unsophisticated in his attempt to walk in the little footsteps of Jesus.  He remained a child, and the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

I smiled with joy at the comic relief kid.  His cheeks were squished into the cardboard face of Brother Sun.  He stood behind a 12-year-old Francis, and as Chubby Brother Sun lifted his hands in song with the rest of Cardboard Creation, tears filled my eyes.  Here was the saint I had come to love, the saint who in many ways had helped to form my character and my approach to Christ himself, full of life in the embrace of his suffering, singing out his song of praise, stigmatic sashes adorning his hands, his pain turned into the glory of God.

I whispered a prayer in the darkness.

“My God, and my All.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Those Who Grant Pardon

Be Praised, my Lord, for those who grant pardon for love of thee…

The world is full of people longing for pardon.  

Hundreds of visitors milled about beneath the watchful gaze of the granite saints, under the great dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica.    Cameras flashed and tourists pointed, and some folks even prayed.  I stepped into a small wooden closet, a confessional, in the eastern wing of the ancient cathedral.  The sign outside the booth said that confessions could be heard in Italian and English at this one.  

Having spent most of my life as a non-Catholic Christian, the practice of confession was one that, since my conversion to the Catholic Church, was still a bit awkward for me.  But I knew my sin, and I knew I needed this.  It hung over me like a dark cloud, raining shame down upon me, sometimes in a gloomy shower, sometimes in a hurricane of guilt.  They come without warning, these storms, and the best a man can do is take shelter or be torn to pieces by the relentless winds.  And the world is full of people who’ve been torn to pieces.

I took a breath, and began my quiet confession.  “Bless me, father, for I have sinned….”


I have always had a tender place in my heart for winos, and hopeless drunks.  They are men caught stranded and alone in a perpetual hurricane.  In my mind I can see three winos in the midst of the tempest, four drunks in the middle of a storm.

n my mind some moments that will remain with me for a long time to come.

He was drunk again.  It was a summer day, in that last California summer before my year of exile.  It hurt me deeply to see him like this, because this was not the man he was anymore.  Grace and friendship and the Spirit had long been at work, but it seemed they were working their way into the frightening places, the places in his heart and soul that shamed him most.  So here he was, weeping and pathetic as he was the first day I met him, wallowing in the remorse that had sent him to drink so many years ago.  Anger and tears poured out of him, and like a cornered animal, he fought in his fear to keep us away.

He was drunk again.  It was a warm spring day, a year and a half into my year of exile.  He didn’t like the apartment he was staying in; he said they did crack there.  He didn’t do crack.  But where else can a man go if he wants to be free to drink?  We were parked outside the apartment, and he sat in the passenger’s seat of my borrowed car.  I put my hand on his shoulder, as his tears fell perfectly onto the seatbelt strap.  “I’m just upset,” he said.  “I’m just upset.”

He was drunk again.  It was a cool autumn night in California, two years before my year of exile.  I held his hand on the small kitchen table.  “Everybody’s been so nice to me,” he said.  “I don’t know why everyone’s been so nice to me.”  He loved people deeply.  He poured much love into the people around him, but kept it from the one person he had deemed unworthy of receiving it: himself.  “I don’t know why everyone’s been so nice to me.”

I was drunk again.  It was a late night, less than a year before my year of exile.  I told myself it was just to help me get to sleep, and I wasn’t very drunk, and I’d always had trouble sleeping.  But of course it was more than that, even if I couldn’t admit it.  If I could fall asleep more quickly, I would have less time to lay there and think of my regrets.  I’d failed in my relationships.  I’d betrayed my closest friends for the sake of my own disfunction, even while working and praying with them every day .  And all while living as a missionary.  Of course, I told myself, this was in the past, and I’d accepted forgiveness.  Maybe everyone else had forgiven me, but I’d never left the shame of my failures very far behind.  Sometimes they felt as close as the dark of my room.

The past is a thing that somehow gets away with disobeying the laws of time and space:  The past is always present.  Oh, the good things, the sweet and lovely things, stay in their place in the greys far behind you, and take on the shape of mist-covered mountains.  But the bad things, the broken and shameful things, they move with you.  They follow at your feet like a sick dog, tripping you up and sending you facedown in the dirt.  That, of course, is when the storm breaks, and the rain comes, and that sick dog becomes your closest friend.

He was weeping again.  He lay on his back that night, staring at the curtain of the sky, and the night seemed to press upon him with the weight of a thousand sins.  Brother Leo slept on the ground not far from him, and Francis did his best to stifle the groans that rose from his throat.  The wretchedness of his heart seemed to cut through his chest like a knife.  When the world acclaims you as a living saint, the weight of your failings becomes unbearable, and you find yourself beating your breast all the harder for living such a lie.

The morning brought no relief, when Brother Leo arose to begin their morning prayers.  

“Brother Leo,” he said quietly, “we have no breviary for our matins, so I want to pray, and I want you to repeat something to me exactly as I tell you.  And please, don’t change a word.”

Leo, unsettled but ever obedient, agreed.

“I will say this: ‘Francis, you have done so much evil, committed so many sins, that you’re only worthy of hell.’  And you, Brother Leo, will answer like this: ‘It is very true that you are worthy of the nethermost hell.’” 

So Francis began with his self-accusation.  “Francis,” he told himself, “you’ve done so much evil, committed so many sins, that you are only worthy of hell.”

But a strange thing happened when Brother Leo meant to answer as he was instructed.  All that came out was this: “God will work so much good through you that you will certainly go to heaven.”

“No, no, no!” said Francis.  “Don’t say that.  When I say, ‘Francis, you have committed so many crimes against God that you are only worthy to be cursed by him,’ you will say, ‘Yes indeed!  You will be counted among the cursed!’  Understand?”

“Yes, my Father,” said Leo.

And Francis began again, with many tears and great sadness.  “O Lord of heaven and earth, I’ve done so much wrong, I’ve committed so much iniquity, I deserve only to be cursed by thee!”

And Brother Leo said, “O Brother Francis, among all the blessed, the Lord will cause you to be especially blessed.”

“No, no, no!” cried Francis.  “Why do you answer me like that?!  I command you under holy obedience to say as I tell you.  I want you to say, ‘You aren’t worthy of finding mercy’.  Got it?”

“Yes, my Father,” said Leo.

And Francis began a third time, with many tears and great sadness.  “O wicked Brother Francis, do you really think God will have mercy on you? You who have sinned so much against the Father of mercies that you’re not even worthy of finding mercy?”  And his weeping rose to the morning sky.

And Brother Leo said, “God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than your sin, will show you great mercy and grant you many graces.”

“NO, NO, NO!!” cried Francis, exasperated.  “How can you presume against holy obedience?  Why won’t you answer me as I’ve told you??”

Brother Leo choked a little as he spoke.  “God knows, Father Francis, that I resolved in my heart to answer you each time just as you told me!  But the Lord made me to speak as it pleased him!”  Tears now flowed freely from Leo’s eyes as he pressed on more boldly.  “And not only will he have mercy on you, but you’ll receive from him beautiful graces, and he will raise you up and glorify you to all eternity!  For he that humbles himself shall be exalted, and I can’t say otherwise, because it’s God that speaks by my lips!”

Francis was silent.  His tears glistened in the rising sun, and the morning’s new mercies dried them.  

“Alright,” he said quietly.  “Alright.  Then I suppose there’s nothing left to do but sing.”

The world is full of people longing for pardon.  Francis knew this longing, and he knew that he was unworthy of such grace.  He also knew the sweetness, that graceful weightlessness, of pardon and forgiveness.  In one of his letters, he wrote of this sweetness:

By this I wish to know if you love God, and me His servant and your servant: that there be no brother in the world who has sinned, no matter how great his sin may be, who after he has seen your face shall ever go away without your mercy….  And even if he does not seek mercy, ask him if he would like to receive it.


He was eating again.  It’s a year and a half into my year in exile, and I’m looking at a photo my friend emailed to me.  It’s his birthday in this picture, and he’s working on a pile of chicken wings at the Golden Corral.  Friends surround him, and I miss him.  But at least he’s wearing the t-shirt I sent.  I long to see him again, to embrace him.  I know he still fights, quite hard sometimes, against grace and pardon, I know he’s afraid, but he’s losing.  

He was drunk again.  I saw him today, a year and a half into my year of exile, his head lolling into his lap, a cigarette nearly forgotten and dangling precariously from his fingers.  I said a prayer, and reminded myself of the persistence of hope.  Grace is still telling his story, and it’s not finished yet.

He was singing again.  I listened from 2600 miles away, a year and three months into my year of exile.  Tears came to my eyes.  He stood before his church, telling his story of grace and forgiveness, laughing, and singing a song of the mercy of God.  The Father was telling him just what he was worth.  He had been very nice to him.

I’m confessing again.  The shame of my failures pours out in stammering words.  The priest listens carefully, and as he offers the words of absolution, tears roll down my cheeks and into my beard.  I’ve gotten a little better at this confession thing since that day in Rome.  That little confession, so many months ago in the little wooden shack in St. Peter’s Basilica, was good practice.  

Speaking of which, I really liked that one.  The priest, who I’m sure had heard about a hundred confessions already that day, spoke the words of absolution in a thick Italian accent.  “May God give you uh-pardon and uh-peace,” he said, “and I absolve uh-you from uh-your sins in-a-the name ofuh the Father, and ofuh the Son, and ofuh the Holy Spirit.  And… uh-bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye,” I said, smiling.  I chuckled to myself, for God the Father, whose mercy is infinitely greater than my sin, had shown me great mercy and granted me many graces.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Our Sister, Mother Earth

Praised be my Lord for our sister, Mother Earth,
who keeps us and feeds us,
and brings forth fruits of many kinds,
 with grass and flowers bright.

Bless and praise my Lord,
thank Him, and serve Him in all humility

There is something inexpressible about the heart of Nature and the heart of Man.  It is right and well that Francis called her “our sister, Mother Earth”.  We are made of the same stuff, as siblings, and we are born from her dust as children, formed from her clay by the hands of God.  Indeed, when we are in communion with her, it is also a communion with the Father himself.  To see this communion at play (often quite literally “at play”) is lovely.

The city is a hard place to live, and for those who live there with little to no opportunity to escape from it from time to time, it can be downright deadening.  The noise of incessant traffic, the glint of steel, the hardness of concrete beneath your feet.  The “F” word is as common as the clamour of construction as the drama of dysfunction plays out constantly before your eyes;  the hardened heart of the city seeps into your own, calcifying tenderness and petrifying love.  These things work a terrible, cacophonous song into the soul of a person whose life is already marked by seclusion, by pain, by isolation.

But it’s a strange and wonderful magic when that discordant tune gives way to the song of sister Mother Earth.  Noise gives way to silence, confusion gives way to clarity, and callousness gives way to tenderness as you are swept into the arms and cradled in her maternal embrace.

My friend has been to prison more than once.  His life has been hard in more ways than I will ever know.  He has lived the life of a criminal, a working man, a hobo and a wino.  It was the wino that I first met, so many years ago.  His story, which is still being told, is a novel in itself; let it be enough to say here that it is a story of friendship and redemption.  It was a redeemed man that we brought that day to Knight’s Ferry, a beautiful conservation area that’s just a 40 minute drive from downtown Modesto.  A redeemed man, to be sure, but one (like all of us) still prone to the temptation of living in old patterns of hardness and isolation.  Sometimes such a man needs to rip off his shirt and dive into the ice-cold waters of a mountain-fed river.  Sometimes such a man needs to be baptized again.

I wish I could adequately describe the picture I still see in my mind of that moment, the unexpectedness of the moment when three friends standing by the riverside became two friends watching and laughing while the third is throwing off his clothes and jumping with abandon into the frigid waters.  I wish I could share without words the picture of that man floating on his back, eyes to the sky, his face the very picture of a hobo’s peace.  That day the river held him like a newborn son, and the old drunk was like a weened child with his mother.

Richard is a man I’m still coming to know, someone I’ve met on the streets of the Canadian town I’ve been tentatively calling ‘home’ since my return from my Italian adventures.  His eyes are soft and kind, his fingers stained with nicotine, his heart carrying a terrible burden.  He’s lived on the street for a very long time, and has rarely had the opportunity to leave the city.  But he has the soul of a truck driver, a profession he held for over thirty years, and his heart still longs for the open road.  I asked him, one blustery January day, if he’d like to take a drive.

“Where are we goin’?” he asked.

“Away from the things of man,” I said.

He threw his backpack in the back seat, and wobbled into my borrowed black PT Cruiser.

We drove.

It’s amazing to see where you’ll go when you have no particular place to be.  We listened to Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin.  We stopped by a bridge in a small village and looked out at the rushing river below.  Again I saw the familiar look of a man finding his soul.

A few weeks later, when good friends with boarding stables invited us out for a visit, I saw that soul kissed by the whiskers of a mare named Molly.  They would be friends for a long time to come.  We still make it out for a visit every other week or so, and at every visit he stands by Molly’s gate, and she saunters over to say Hello.  There is a mothering magic at work here, a whispering of the Kingdom into Richard’s soul as he nuzzles the nose of his favourite horse, for her horse breath is as the breath of God in Adam’s nostrils.

When I see his face clouded with confusion and cheap sherry, his eyes darkened by a lonesome gloom, I need only mention Molly and light breaks through.

“She sees me and youknowwhat?  She knows.”  And he smiles, and his soul remembers its source.

On the western side of the mountain of La Verna, Italy, there is a cliff.  At the top of the cliff is the Chapel of the Stigmata, built on the site of Francis’s vision of Christ’s Passion.  From here there is a small walkway that leads outside, built for visiting the small hole in the wall where Francis was known to seclude himself in prayer.  Here you can visit the small stone womb where he would restore himself as he watched the sun’s gold light fall down upon the hills around him.  This place is known as the Precipizio, the Precipice, and from Francis’s hollow, it is a long, shear drop down into the tree-spotted meadow below. (Once, the devil himself tried to throw Francis down to his death from this cliff, but as Francis fell, the face of the rock turned to putty and...  well, that’s another story.)

I stood on the Precipice, and watched the sun — that same ever-blessed sun that Francis saw — crown sister Mother Earth with another golden diadem.  If I had the words to describe every sunset I’ve seen, I don’t think the world could contain the books that would be written.  This one, this particular, never-to-be-repeated sunset, was of course unlike any I’d seen before.  My cane — that ever-blessed cane — lay atop the stone wall overlooking the golden green trees below, the blue-grey mountains in the near distance.  Birds chattered and sang songs about the close of the day, and I drank up all the sights and sounds in slow, savouring draughts.

The birds, the sun, the trees below, were beautiful of course, but not a surprise.  What did surprise me were the maple seeds, falling upward from the trees below into the sky above.  I watched in wonder as one by one, every few minutes, “helicopter seeds” ascended the face of the cliff, up, up and over the roof of the chapel above.  I noticed more helicopter seeds on the walkway around me.  Like a kid, I gathered them up, set them carefully on the stone wall, and flicked them one by one into the sky in front of me.  They would descend for a moment, only to be caught by the graceful wind and carried up and away.  With great joy I found that I was, like these seeds, caught up in something unexpected, carried along and brought back to a place of giggling wonder.

Once, 1200-or-so years before Francis sat here in the womb of the Precipice (undoubtedly watching with the same kind of wonder at the ascendent maple seeds), a pharisee named Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can a person once grown old be born again?”  Jesus told him that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  “Do not be amazed,” he told the pharisee, “that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And here is a key, a secret, to life in the Kingdom, to rebirth, to life in the Spirit: the holy, holy Earth that God has given us; this sacred older sister who sustains us.  By her silent witness have countless souls been caught up like helicopter seeds into the Spirit of God.  She keeps us, and feeds us, and washes us in rivers.  She puts her fingers (which are soft and strong and smell like earth; like a china doll working in a garden) to our drooping chin, lifting our eyes to the golden sky and the miracle of seeds in flight.  And she sings, oh she sings so sweetly, songs of the Father into the hearts of hardened men.  She blesses Him, and praises Him, and serves him with all humility.  The Lord bids her send winds as whispers to carry us where the Spirit wills, that we who were born from sister Mother Earth, we who have sinned and grown old, may be born again of the Spirit, and born from above.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brother Fire, Boisterous and Strong

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.

The men on fire danced, and the flames rose high and exuberant into the night air.  Crowds of people watched and clapped and snapped digital pictures from an unsafe distance.  Burning embers fell from the giant flames, scattering across the ground at our feet.

I had walked here to the Basilica Di Maria Di Angelus from the church of the Rivotorto.  The words of Francis lingered from my time at the chapel by the river, and they were sinking slowly into my soul. “The Lord has given me brothers.”  As I arrived, the sun was still bright on the gathering crowds, but getting low and taking on a distinctly golden hue.

Angels hovered above, as children on floats, with sturdy rigging and seraphic costumes, stood levitating gracefully in the air.  Next to the little cherubs, men dressed in trilby hats and expansive cloaks carried on their shoulders what looked like giant sets of brooms, bound together and splayed in rows of four.  Along with the angel children, it was one of the strangest things I’d yet seen, and I wondered for what in the world these contraptions would be used.

I wandered into the cathedral amid the crowds of people, who were milling about and settling in.  They lined the pews, and stood against the pillars, and sat on the floor.  And the Porziuncola, the tiny church of the Little Portion, stood in the midst of it, silently testifying to the life of the saint we had all come to honour.  Tonight was the anniversary of the Transitus: the night that Father Francis was at last welcomed into the embrace of the Saviour; the night that the saint at last was caught up into the ultimate fire of Divine Love.  It was right here, 785 short years ago, close by to his beloved Little Portion and in the company of his closest friends, that Francis had died. 

As the service began, a great stream of brown robes of every shade came flowing in through the great doors of the basilica, as Franciscans of every variety processed into the cathedral.  The service itself was simple, and mostly unintelligible to my North American ears, but I made friends with an undercover Capuchin at the back of the church.  He was dressed in his civvies, and had the kind, round Brazilian face.  He spoke almost no english, but between my broken amounts of spanish and italian, his broken amounts of english and italian, and an iPhone translation app, we became quick friends.  I told him of my life in California, my love for Francis, and about my small, strange, and wonderful community of brothers and sisters.  I told him of my desire to live out the vows of Francis in poverty, chastity, and obedience.  He was fascinated.  In portuguese, italian, english and spanish, we figured out a way to meet again.

After the service, we shook hands and parted ways.  I felt the glow of friendship in my chest, and smiled at the strange way in which two people who could not speak each other’s language could share such a heartfelt conversation.  The darkness of night was now creeping in, and I followed my nose toward the savoury scents of street food.  

My budget was tight, but when I saw a sign on a small food cart which read, “Crepes alla Nutella”, I knew it was meant to be.  I held my finger up and said, “Uno!”  The Crepe Lady deftly swatted the pancake-like dough on the portable griddle, generously applied the chocolatey, hazelnutty goodness, and folded it all up in a triangle of sweet loveliness.  I took a bite, crepe crumbs and Nutella spread baptizing my beard.  It was good.  It was very good.

I turned to admire the basilica, now lit up against a darkening sky with floodlights and filaments, and I noticed a great crowd in front of the church.  I heard music and clapping, and saw what seemed to be several gigantic fires rising into the sky.  But the fires were not stationary bonfires.  They seemed to be moving and twirling.

What in the…?

I approached the crowd, winding my way slowly through the mass of smiling, picture-taking people.  There in the open area of the square were several men, the men with the cloaks and the trilby hats I’d seen earlier, dancing around, engulfed flames.  I saw now the purpose of the giant brooms.  They were worn on the necks of these men (who were, clearly, quite insane), and set ablaze.  The music played and the men danced, red-hot embers falling all about the square, as they began to make their way through the piazza.  The crowd followed, clapping and walking circumspectly through the multitude of still-burning coals.  

I tried to imagine an event anything like this ever happening in North America, and instead imagined an insurance agent having an aneurism.  Kids ran freely through the scattered coals, as grown-ups, less mindful than the children, singed their leather soles.

I had no idea how such a thing ever came to be associated with the foolish little saint, but it was reckless and beautiful, dangerous and jolly.  A perfect fit for a man like Francis, for what is holier than fire, and what is more foolish than dancing?  

And what a dangerous thing it is to burn.

Fire is a strange thing: utterly destructive and completely fascinating.  Perhaps a key to understanding Francis is in understanding Francis as “Brother Fire” himself.  That flame that so engulfed his life, and set him dancing across the Umbrian countryside like ball lightning, was fed by something.  Francis became fire because he let himself be consumed.  

But this was no disembodied, metaphysical flame of mere enlightenment, or some kind of self-perpetuating (and self-extinguishing) fire of youthful exuberance.  This was nothing less than the burning love of a Holy God.

After centuries of stories and religious art, we may see pictures of Francis tending to the poor and the lame in some merely symbolic or vaguely spiritual sense.  But the truth is that love is never merely symbolic, and never vaguely spiritual, for real spiritual love is manifested in the flesh.  Francis did not serve lepers because it was a spiritual thing to do.  He served lepers because he loved them.  He knew their names.  And Francis’s real hands washed real feet.  And as he did this, the fire burned and the fire grew, and his heart felt the sweet, almost physical pain of selfless love.  The kind of love that, at the thought of the beloved in any kind of pain, constricts the muscles in your chest and gives birth to the purest of prayers:  “Oh, Lord… Have mercy!”

This was the fire that consumed Francis.  And with it, everything unworthy of such a pure and blazing love was torn away from his heart, from his mind, from his flesh.  Here, in the face of such holiness, Francis was made aware of the limits of his humanity.  There are stories of Francis abusing himself verbally, even physically, but it’s important to kneel down and inspect closely the source of these actions before we shake our heads and dismiss them.  These were not just a commendable but ultimately misdirected bits of self-deprecation, nor were they some kind of severe case of “Catholic Guilt”.  These words and actions came from a profound knowledge of the human condition, an unveiling of the heart that happens when we attempt great acts of love.  When we strive to come close to the holy heart of Jesus, the paper-thin covering that hides the darkness of our heart goes up in a flash of smoking embers, and our truest, most selfish selves, are revealed.  And it’s here that God can truly begin to heal us.

Finally, in this healing, in this release of the self, in this letting go of pride, of protection, in this embrace of holiness, there is joy.  Deep, tears-to-your-eyes joy, and perfect freedom.  Unfortunately for us, these things don’t happen in stages, like the ascent of a mountain.  No, God is not so easily captured as Everest.  If we set ourselves upon his love, if we commit ourselves to the burning, it happens all at once in an ever-swirling, roiling fire of tears and laughter, of longing and crying and singing with joy, and it goes on and on for the rest of our lives.  We spin, we twirl, we dance, we burn.  We light up the night with the light of God.  

And we are beautiful, and jolly, and boisterous and strong.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Brother Fire, Beautiful and Jolly

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.

Grizzo lay close to the fire.  It was warm and inviting on a cool night, and like every campfire, it bore an invitation to mystery, and to communion.  That Giovanni’s little dog was aware of this was no surprise.  Giovanni, like every 12 year old boy at a campfire, practiced his fire twirling skills with the biggest stick he could find, much to his mother’s concern.  I must confess, it was I who had gotten him started.  I’d taken a twig and gotten its end glowing in the fire, and began to write my name and make golden glowing circles in the dark.  Of course, the boy had to take it to the next level, and soon he held the biggest stick he could manage, both ends glowing in ember and spinning through his hands like a Samoan fire dancer.

Mariella prepared the water she had fetched and set the small metal pot next to the fire to boil.  Some time in the next hour or so it would be bubbling.  Armando gathered more wood from among the trees lining the hill on which we sat.  Their camp rested in the field on a gentle slope, just off the path to the church of San Damiano, and their tent stood a few metres away.  A clothes line stretched between the nearby row of trees, and a few shirts bounced in the breeze and glowed gold from the fire’s light.  As Armando returned with another armful of wood, Grizzo pricked up his ears.  I scratched those ears and petted his neck.  Giovanni took a break from his stick twirling, and hunkered down to poke at the fire. The plastic rosary around his neck caught the firelight, the cross swaying thoughtfully and glowing faintly.

The sky was quiet, and the moon was hidden somewhere among the trees, and every now and then a fruit bat swooped past the edges of the firelight.  To my left, and in the back of my mind, Francis sat with his closest friends, their faces smiling and lit with the same holy glow our own fire bestowed.  No city lights lit the plains at the foot of their hill, but the same small city rested above the both of us, and the same small church sat at our feet.

This is why Francis loved Brother Fire so much, I thought.  It’s inherently holy, and calms the spirit, and draws us together.  And truly, of all the elements for which Saint Francis gave praise and thanks to God, it may be fire that best describes him.  Boisterous and beautiful, playful and dangerous.  Maybe this is why there are as many stories about Francis and fire as there are stories about birds and lepers and unexpected converts.  (There was even that time when Francis himself seemed to be consumed and not burned, like the burning bush of Moses, by a fire that floated down from heaven.  But that’s another story.)

Armando stretched out a small blanket that would eventually serve both as Mariella’s kitchen and our dinner table, and she began preparing tomatoes and other garnishes I couldn’t quite see in the dim light of the fire.  At long last, the small pot of water had come to a boil, and Mariella began mixing it with cornmeal.  Armando offered me wine.  I gratefully accepted, and he poured it into a small plastic cup, and offered me a disposable chalice of deep, red joy.

“This wine is, ah, ‘Barberesco’,” he said.

“Ah,” I said.  I recalled the photo we’d taken together earlier in the evening, of our little group of bearded tramps.  If I could milk a joke a little further, especially one in a foreign language, I had to.  “You mean ‘Barbosco’,”  I mused, stroking my chin and recalling the term for a beard and a vagrant.

To my delight, Armando laughed loudly.  “Barbosco!” And he repeated the bad pun for Mariella.  “Italianitalianitalian, ‘Barbarosco’!” he said, and laughed again.  Clearly, I’d struck gold with this one.  I glanced over at the other campfire.  Francis and the brothers were laughing, too.

Eventually Mariella’s meal was ready, and we bowed our heads and joined hands for a simple prayer of thanks, and four hands made the sign of the cross over four hearts, in common reverence.  “Amen,” we said.  (It works in every language.)

I tasted the cornmeal and tomato concoction.  It was perhaps the best thing I’d tasted since I’d come to Italy.  “This is very good,” I said, almost enraptured.  “Um… Delizioso!  What is this called?”

Armando translated my question for his wife.  “Polenta,” she replied.

“Very old, Northern Italian meal,” Armando added.

“Polenta,” I repeated.  “So good!”

Armando refilled my small cup of wine.  Mine and Mariella’s and his own, and a little for Giovanni, too.

We sat back, satisfied, and enjoyed the night air.  Armando arose and said, “One moment,” and disappeared into their tent.  He returned, and in his hands was an old guitar, and an even older songbook full of folk songs.  He opened the book, and found his glasses, and began to strum the chords to Blowin’ in the Wind.  We stumbled through the words, his thick accent flavouring the lyrics like oregano.  

I took the guitar and clumsily strummed through the one song I know, I Still Miss Someone.  After some singular applause, I returned the guitar to Armando.  He strained his eyes at the songbook and his mouth at the English words as I held the book for him, and we sang Kumbayah (yes, Kumbayah) and Down by the Riverside and the fragments of half a dozen other old songs.

As this small group of poverellos sang into the night under the Umbrian stars, I glanced again to my left.  Francis and the brothers were singing, too.